It’s Friday, and our production of Clybourne Park has just one more week in the rehearsal room before tech rehearsals begin onstage. In rehearsals, we always focus on language, and on the implications of the words of the playwright. Why does a character say what they say, when they say it? Why doesn’t another character react, or why do they react the way they do? Especially now, as the actors work to commit their lines to memory, understanding the motivation for their words is crucial.
But Bruce Norris has crafted a play that, in many ways, is about language, about how we articulate our thoughts, particularly around race and racial inequalities. In a 2011 interview about the play, Norris said “Well, a lot of superficial changes have happened, to laws and to ways people have access to education and to public services, but what hasn’t changed and what stubbornly refuses to change are our natures. We keep wanting to be around those we feel more comfortable with. If only legislation could change what we are actually like, but it can’t.” And in the play, when contentious situations arise between characters of different races, the words the characters use, and their struggles to find the right words, are excellent examples. Norris also believes that this focus on language is a particularly middle-class trait. “Well,” he says, “the middle class is always concerned with looking good, appearing sophisticated. Being tasteful is part of what the middle class is all about. It’s the middle classes who are always struggling with, ‘What’s the new word for African American?’ or ‘What can I say now?’
So our focus on language in the rehearsal room is heightened, and as the show’s dramaturg, I find myself thinking about word choice all the time, even when I’m not in rehearsal. I was shocked to read, in the Democrat and Chronicle, about an incident at a Brighton HS basketball game. And that’s exactly what makes a play like Clybourne Park so important today – Norris wants white America in particular to stop and look at the way we treat people of all races, to examine our ideals and question whether or not we’re really living up to them. Are we concerned only with appearances, with the words we use? Or have we looked deeper and understood what’s behind the word choice?
Yesterday, Tavis Smiley participated in a panel discussion on the “State of Race in Rochester,” and this morning’s paper held a particularly apt quote from Smiley. It was a piece of advice to a college student, but it feels appropriate to us all: “In your immediate universe, there is at least one thing that has to unsettle you,” he said. “Something in your immediate circle that you’re sick and tired of dealing with, and walking past every day. See what that thing is, and assign yourself to it. As long as you follow the need of your people, there will always be something you can do.”
What unsettles you? What will you assign yourself to?